Two paths mark the way to Faery 1. The first dazzles the eye with an assortment of glittering accessories and pretty trifles. It is easy to locate; the merchandise will lead the way. The second path is a bit more difficult to come by. Legend tells us that it can sometimes be found while trying to follow the ghostly blur of a white deer through the forest or by stumbling upon a ring of mushrooms and fertile grass.
Like so very many things, Faery is not what it seems. Even the fairy tales of our youth, in their true forms, contain sometimes gruesome elements, and there is not always such a happy ending awaiting the protagonist at the end of the story. Many so called "fairy tales" began as folktales catered to an adult audience. The sanitized versions that are read to children to sooth them into sleep and assure them that the hero/heroine always triumphs came later. For instance, in Hans Christian Andersen's original The Little Mermaid, the title character does not marry her handsome prince, nor does she acquire an everlasting human soul through his reciprocal romantic love, in fact, she commits suicide, throwing herself into the ocean while still in human form.
The same can be said of Faery. Modern culture has taught us to regard faeries in much the same way as we now regard fairy tales. We have been fed a pre-packaged, sugar-coated, and well-tamed version of the original:
At the end of the 17th century the sophisticated French fairy-stories of Perrault and Madame D'Aulnoy were translated into English. They began as real traditional tales, polished to meet the taste of the French court, and they were equally popular in England. Half the court seem to have tried their hands at them, and as time went on they moved farther away from their original. The fairy godmothers, already at one remove from folk fairies, became relentless moralists, driving their protégés along the path to virtue. The trend persisted into the 19th century, and it was not until a quarter of it had passed that the researches of the folklorists began to have some effect on children's literature. [...] At the beginning of the 20th century, an extreme tenderness and sensibility about children almost overwhelmed the folk fairies and turned them into airy, tenuous, pretty creatures without meat or muscles, made up of froth and whimsy.2Faeries are an extremely diverse group, encompassing many, many emanations, yet at present many only acknowledge a very limited portion of their potentialities. The word faery (or "fairy") in our times conjures images of childlike sprites dressed in leaves and flower petals, beings who only exist to be of benefit to humanity. Another exceedingly popular image is that of an attractive female with butterfly wings. Some individuals seem to honestly believe that these archetypes define Faery – that it begins and ends with such shallow, hackneyed images. These people speak only of fresh morning dew, sparkling fairydust, toadstools, and delicate wildflowers. They cannot speak for the totality of Faery, and there is more to Faery than meets the eye: "Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder. Elves are marvelous. They cause marvels...Elves are terrific. They beget terror...No-one ever said elves are nice."3
If one is to discard the definition of a faery as simply a diminutive humanoid being with pointed ears and a penchant for mischievous behavior, then we are forced to ask: what is Faery? Admittedly, this is not an easy question to answer. In fact, it may not be a question that we are entirely capable of answering. Faery will not manifest itself in a lab setting to be measured, dissected, and classified by empirical science. This trait of Faery is likely why a belief in it has persisted even until the present day when science and segments of "rational" society have denied its existence: at the moment, science cannot prove its existence, yet it cannot disprove it either. While a belief in faeries by the uneducated peasantry can often be dismissed as the product of ignorance and an active imagination, "this is not enough. Even let it be granted that nine out of every ten cases of experiences with fairies can be analysed and explained away - there remains the tenth. In this tenth case one is obliged to admit that there is something at work which we do not understand, some force in play which, as yet, we know not. In spite of ourselves we feel 'There's Powers that's in'"4.
But still the question intrigues us, and so many have sought a working "definition" of Faery. Probably the best and most encompassing definition, in my opinion, is that faeries are spirits of Nature. Of course, even this description begs us to question further what both the notion of spirit and Nature really imply. The term "nature spirit," and even the word "Nature" itself, is often construed as having a much narrower realm of influence and implication than perhaps it should. Some find the application of "nature spirits" to describe faeries as almost demeaning and hopelessly limited. For instance, author Rae Beth matter-of-factly dismisses that term: "Faeries are not nature spirits, they are not flower devas, and they are not tiny. [. . .] Their business, partly, is to weave fate." 5 While there are certainly ample examples in myth and folklore of faeries who are tied to specific plots of earth, landscape features, and even to particular trees or bodies of water, Nature can have much deeper, more profound connotations with regard to the nature of Faery. Nature is not simply the physical soil beneath our feet and that which grows from it. It is not simply pastoral scenes and verdant gardens. Nature can also refer to the nature of existence, the nature of the unseen world which is embodied by and intersects with our own. Nature is not exhausted by its familiar, tactile manifestations in flowers and rocks and winding streams – Nature should be considered a verb as well as a noun. The relationships and processes that bring those tactile elements into form and erode them back into oblivion are also Nature. Ultimately, Nature is the fiber from which Fate is woven, and it is also the complex, interlacing patterns that define the fabric of Fate itself. Therefore, "nature spirits" is only limiting insofar as an individual's concept of Nature is hopelessly limited.
Tracing the roots and routes of language can often reveal older patterns of thought, illuminating links that were previously sensed
between entities and acknowledging their true ancestral connections, thereby reinforcing intuition with history. Etymology has indeed linked "fairy" and "faery" with the mysterious powers of Fate. Though a more recently introduced term in the vocabulary of the intimate, yet generally invisible realm of the Otherworld and its inhabitants, Faery and its linguistic variants has been almost universally adopted in reference to that realm by European cultures. In numerous lands, however, even though that word is widely known, it may not be widely used by those who truly understand how close at hand the Otherworld is. Comprehending both the inherent potency in that term as well as the fact that faeries revile mortals who try to pry too deeply into their affairs, these folk will nearly always avoid its usage and will instead choose to either refer obliquely to "Them" or to exercise a bit of humble glamour by utilizing less dangerous, more pleasant-sounding euphemisms.
"[W]e are madly erring, through self-esteem, in believing man, in either his temporal or future destinies, to be of more moment in the universe than that vast 'clod of the valley' which he tills and condemns, and to which he denies a soul for no more profound reason than that he does not behold it in operation."6
"It is obviously the purest anthropomorphism to assume that the absence of a human quality in bird, cloud, or star is the presence of a total blank, or to assume that what is not conscious is merely unconscious. Nature is not necessarily arranged in accordance with the system of mutually exclusive alternatives which characterize our language and logic. Furthermore, may it not be that when we speak of nature as blind, and of matter-energy as unintelligent, we are simply projecting upon them the blankness which we feel when we try to know our own consciousness as an object, when we try to see our own eyes or taste our own tongues?"7
Footnotes and Bibliography
1) Technically, according to the traditional ballad "Thomas the Rhymer," it is the third path that is the road to Faery: "O see not ye yon narrow road, / So thick beset wi thorns and briers? / That is the path of righteousness, / tho after it but few enquires. / And see not ye that braid braid road, / That lies across yon lillie leven? / That is the path of wickedness, / Tho some call it the road to heaven. / And see not ye that bonny road, / Which winds about the fernie brae? / That is the road to fair Elfland, / Whe(re) you and I this night maun gae."
2) Briggs, Katharine. An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976. 166-167.
3) Pratchett, Terry. Lords and Ladies. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993. 169 - 70.
4) Evans-Wentz, W.Y. The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries: The Classic Study of Leprechauns, Pixies, and Other Fairy Spirits. New York: Citadel Press, 1994. 119.
5) Beth, Rae. The Wiccan Way: Magical Spirituality for the Solitary Pagan. Blaine, WA: Phoenix Publishing Inc., 2001. 84.
6) Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Island of the Fay." Edgar Allan Poe: Complete Tales & Poems. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2001. 228.
7) Watts, Alan W. Nature, Man and Woman. New York: Vintage Books, 1958. 6-7.